Bringing the woolly mammoth back to life in the fight against global warming?

It has been over 10,000 years since a woolly mammoth has set foot on our planet. But engineers and scientists now hope to resuscitate the species. Or almost. With the ambition that the resulting hybrid animal can participate in our effort to limit global warming.

Fifteen million dollars. It is the sum that start-up American has just risen to resuscitate the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). A species which populated northern Eurasia and North America during the Pleistocene. But that we no longer saw strolling in the steppes for some 10,000 years. Resurrect the woolly mammoth or more accurately, create a cold-resistant hybrid species with “Fundamental biological traits” – smaller ears, a rounded head, thick fur and a little more fat – of this species which has been extinct for thousands of years. All with the ambition to help fight against global warming by restoring ecosystems lost.

Colossal engineers, this is how the start-up in question is called, aim to rely on theasian elephant (Elephas maximus) – itself endangered -, a distant relative of the woolly mammoth with whom it shares 99.6% ofDNA and one common ancestor. And on scissor technology genetics, the famous CRISPR technology. With the idea of ​​introducing elements of the DNA of the woolly mammoth into Asian elephant cells to produce embryos exhibiting the most interesting characteristics of the two species. Embryos that could grow in the heart of a uterus artificial built from stem cells.

But why so much effort? To open up new spaces for Asian elephants in which engineers claim that they could flourish without coming into conflict with humans. The Arctic is one of them. And that explains why engineers seek to enrich the elephant with fat and fur. To help him resist the cold. In short, give it additional tools to survive.

An ecological impact yet to be demonstrated

Other researchers are wondering. They argue that Asian elephants are social and intelligent animals with a culture. Imagining moving these animals to new horizons thus raises major ethical questions. Especially since it is not certain that even a true woolly mammoth can still feel comfortable in the Arctic today.

On this point, Colossal engineers hope that the introduction into the region of their hybrid elephants will help to reshape ecosystems. To make them look like the Pleistocene steppes again. According to them, the disappearance of the mammoths favored the development of a tundra which reflects less well the radiation of Sun. And thus participates in global warming. Colossal-style woolly mammoths could also help by constantly trampling the snow to prevent permafrost to melt by releasing carbon imprisoned there for a long time.

For this to have a chance of working – because the effect could also be the opposite – it will be necessary to give birth to enough hybrid elephants, warn researchers outside the project. According to them, the best targets for such rewilding would rather be looking for species more recently extinct or better yet, on the verge of extinction. And capable of multiplying quickly enough to become environmentally efficient.

Don’t get the wrong target

Finally, Colossal engineers argue that the method could then be applied to species now endangered, to help prevent their extinction. But some of their colleagues doubt. They fear that the funding of such media operations will harm the conservation efforts more classic. They even argue that with an equivalent amount, these traditional efforts could save up to eight times as much cash.

In the best-case scenario, Colossal estimates that he may be able to give birth to a small woolly mammoth hybrid elephant in about six years. It will then be necessary to wait some fourteen years for it to be of reproductive age. And that we can then begin to hope that it has an effect on global warming. Given the current urgency, the timing seems anyway, anyway from an ethical point of view, a little tight … To fight against global warming, the best solution to date remains to limit our emissions of greenhouse gas !

They want to resuscitate a mammoth within 2 years

American biologists want to create an Asian elephant-woolly mammoth hybrid using the inexhaustible Crispr / Cas9 gene editing technique. The animal would have some Genoa characteristics of this extinct pachyderm, already identified in the DNA. The goal: better preserve the Asian elephant … and populate the tundra with these “mammouphants” to fight global warming. A truly complicated and ethically questionable “de-extinction” project.

Article by Jean-Luc Goudetpublished on 02/20/2017

Since 2015, a team from Harvard University in the United States has been working on the project Woolly Mammoth Revival, something like the revival of the woolly mammoth. Their idea therefore differs from that of the cloning, which had germinated several years ago to grow in the belly of an elephant an embryo whose DNA would be of a mammoth in good condition extracted from the frozen soil of Siberia. Technically hazardous, this project remains in the limbo .

  • See our article Will cloned mammoths graze on the tundra within 5 years?

American biologists, who also work on other extinct or endangered species, want to make it simpler: create a hybrid, which would in fact be a elephant from Asia carrying a few genes from a woolly mammoth. The latest advances in genetics, in particular Crispr / Cas9 “editing” and better control of stem cells, now make it possible to imagine such a project. This is how he started, when, in 2015, Vincent Lynch’s team succeeded in sequencing the genome of woolly mammothsand to identify genes responsible for adaptation to cold, such as long hairs.

  • See our article Sequenced, mammoth genome reveals adaptation to arctic cold

Professor George Church, who heads this team, has just presented his project at the last AAAS congress (American Association for the Advancement of Science). Here is what they have done or wish to do:

  • Biologists have made a form of “copy / paste” of the cold adaptation genes and installed them in Asian elephant cells (in this case fibroblasts). Why this species? Because it is phylogenetically closer to the woolly mammoth than the African elephant.
  • They isolated four families of genes, corresponding to anatomical characteristics of these mammoths: small ears, subcutaneous fat, long hairs and the efficiency of oxygen transport by the mammoths. Red cells .
  • These fibroblasts have been reprogrammed to become induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) and cultured in the laboratory, which now eliminates the need for embryos.
  • Researchers now want to reprogram stem cells, in three different cultures, to test their performance in three areas: oxygen transport (by making red blood cells), hair growth and fat storage (in the form of cells). fat).
  • Later, the project will involve transferring a skin cell nucleus carrying these genes into a ovumenucleated fertilized and to grow this embryo fully in vitro, because the researchers do not want to endanger a female elephant.

Herds of mammouphants to protect the tundra from global warming

In The Guardian, George Church says that the project will be completed in two years, which seems very optimistic because no one today knows how to conduct full embryonic development in an artificial environment. Church explained to Guardian that his team is trying to do it with mouse embryos. The ethical problem remains posed, as it had been at the time of the ideas of cloning . If he is born, what will become of this animal which will no longer really be an elephant? Moreover, as other researchers point out, an organism is not just about its genes.

For this biologist, the project will “improve” the genome of the Asian elephant, a species considered endangered. If “mammouphants” are created, they could, he continues, be installed in hordes in the Eurasian tundras. Because, explains the team, the mammoths helped to keep the vegetation low, which protects the ground from the sun. Herds of mammouphants would thus reduce the risk of meltingof permafrost, in the context of global warming .

These researchers therefore see very far, and, followers of “de-extinction”, also hope to revive other extinct species, such as the traveling pie (Ectopistes migratorius), which looked like a pigeon. Besides, they are part of the foundation Long Now, who wants to reflect on the ten thousand year scale, specifying that it was founded in “01996”.

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